Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Documentaries as Illumination

by Bill Johnson

A powerful effect of a well-made documentary is its power to illuminate an unknown corner of the world. Such a documentary is Muscle Shoals, about the beginning of a small music studio in Alabama that became the recording studio and provided the musicians for a number of soul artists, including Percy Sledge singing When a Man Loves a Woman.

The founder of the FAME recording studio, Rick Hall, was a fairly young Alabama wastrel turned music producer, and the house band was, in the beginning, just about all local Alabama white boys.

I had not the slightest clue they were the musicians backing artists like Arethea Franklin, Wilson Picket, and other soul singers.

When some members of this house band left and set up a 2nd, soon to be famous recording studio in the same small town, they were recording bands like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

I love documentaries that take me into a corner of the world unknown to me.

A few other recent examples of such documentaries include The September Issue, about the senior editor and founder of Vogue Magazine putting out what would be the largest issue of the magazine; and Buddha’s Lost Children, about a Thai kick boxer who becomes a monk committed to a path of peace. Well, mostly that until some rowdy young men think they can disrupt his group. When he’s off on a journey and a horse goes down in an accident, his group set up camp to wait until their companion the horse can travel again.

Amazing documentary.

A few other of my favorites... Kabul Beauty School, about beauticians who go to Afghanistan to teach hairdressing and the power of getting what you want in life through affirmations to some Afghan stylists who risked murder under the Taliban for working in secret to ply their trade; and The Fog of War, with Robert McNamara (the Donald Rumsfeld of his time) admitting he didn’t have a clue why the Vietnamese wanted the United States out of Viet Nam.

Instant viewing on some of the paid services make it much easier for me to check out documentaries I missed.

If you only watch Hollywood big-budget features, you’re missing some real treats.

I'm just home from watching Spinning Plates, about three restaurants, one rated #7 in the world, a buffet style restaurant that's been open for 150 years, and a struggling, new, Mexican restaurant in Arizona. The documentary takes us deep into the lives and dreams of the people who run and manage these restaurants. Another wonderful example of how a film like this can transport an audience into another world.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit

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